Abortion and the Architecture of Reality

George Tiller, a doctor and abortion provider in Kansas, was shot and killed outside his church on Sunday. The large majority of people on either side of the abortion debate are understandably horrified by an event like this. But it sets up a rhetorical dilemma for anyone who takes seriously the claim that abortion is murder. If George Tiller really was a “baby killer” comparable to Hitler and Stalin, it’s difficult to express unmitigated sadness at his murder. So we get Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, admitting regret — but only that Tiller was a mass murderer who “did not have time to properly prepare his soul to face God.”

On those rare occasions when they attempt to actually talk to each other, people on opposite sides of the abortion debate usually end up talking past each other. Supporters of abortion rights speak in the language of the autonomy of the mother, and her right to control her own body: “If you don’t like abortion, don’t have one.” Opponents of abortion speak in terms of the personhood of the fetus. (Yes, Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who! — “A person’s a person, no matter how small” — is used to teach this point to Catholic children, over Theodor Geisel’s objections.) Opposition to abortion rights can also be a manifestation of the desire to control women’s sexuality, but let’s concentrate on those whose opposition is grounded in a sincere moral belief that abortion is murder.

If someone believes that abortion really is murder, talk of the reproductive freedom of the mother isn’t going to carry much weight — nobody has the right to murder another person. Supporters of abortion rights don’t say “No, this is one case where murder is completely justified.” Rather, they say “No, the fetus is not a person, so abortion is not murder.” The crucial question (I know, this is not exactly an astonishing new insight) is whether a fetus is really a person.

I have nothing original to add to the debate over when “personhood” begins. But there is something to say about how we decide questions like that. And it takes us directly back to the previous discussion about marriage and fundamental physics. The upshot of which is: how you think about the universe, how you conceptualize the natural world around us, obviously is going to have an enormous impact on how you decide questions like “When does personhood begin?”

In a pre-scientific world, life was — quite understandably — thought of as something intrinsically different from non-life. This view could be taken to different extremes; Plato gave voice to one popular tradition, by claiming that the human soul was a distinct, incorporeal entity that actually occupied a human body. These days we know a lot more than they did back then. Science has taught us that living beings and non-living objects are the same kind of things, deep down; we’re all made of the same chemical elements, and all of our constituents obey the same laws of Nature. Life is complicated, and rich, and fascinating, and not very well understood — but it doesn’t obey separate rules apart from those of the non-living world. Living organisms are just very complicated chemical reactions, not vessels that rely on supernatural essences or mystical élan vital to keep them chugging along. Except “just” is a terribly misleading adverb in this context — living organisms are truly amazing very complicated chemical reactions. Knowing that we are made of the same stuff and obey the same rules as the rest of the universe doesn’t diminish the value or meaning of human life in any way.

There is a temptation in some quarters to forget, or at least ignore, the improved understanding of the world that science has given us when it comes to address moral and ethical questions. Part of that is a healthy impulse — science doesn’t actually tell us how to distinguish right from wrong, nor could it possibly. Science deals with how the world works, not how it should work, and despite centuries of trying it remains impossible to derive “ought” from “is.”

But at the same time, it would be crazy not to take our scientific understanding of the world into consideration when we reflect upon moral questions. If you think of a fetus as part of an ongoing complicated chemical reaction, it should come as no surprise that you might reach very different conclusions from someone who thinks that God breathes the spirit of life into a fertilized ovum at the moment of conception.

That’s why it’s equally crazy to believe that science and religion are two distinct, non-overlapping magisteria that simply never address the same questions. That bizarre perspective was advanced by Stephen Jay Gould in Rocks of Ages, but if you read the book carefully you find that his definition of “religion” is simply “moral philosophy.” Which is not what the word means, or how people use it, or how actual religious people think of their beliefs. Religion makes claims about the real world, and some of those claims — not all — can be very straightforwardly judged by the criteria of science. We do not need to invoke spirits being breathed into fertilized eggs in order to understand life, for example. And the fact that science has taught us so much about the workings of the world has enormous consequences for how we should think about moral and ethical questions, even if it can’t answer such questions all by itself.

For example, science is powerless to tell us when “personhood” begins — but it tell us something very crucial about how to go about answering that question. In particular, it tells us that there is no magical moment at which an incorporeal soul takes up residence in a body. Indeed, the concept of a “person” is not to be found anywhere in the natural world; it’s a category that is convenient to appeal to as we try to make sense of the world. But there is not, as far as science is concerned, any right or wrong answer to the question of when the life of a person begins — from Nature’s point of view, it’s just one chemical reaction after another.

At this point, a lot of impatient people declare that morality and ethics are simply impossible in such a world, and storm out in frustration. But this is the world in which we actually live, so storming out is not a productive response. Morality and ethics are possible, but they’re not to be found in Natural Law — they are the creation of human beings, reasoning together on the basis of their shared feelings and experiences. Human beings are not blank slates, nor are they immutable tablets; we are born into the world with certain wants and desires and natural reactions to events, and those feelings can adapt and change over time in response to learning and reasoning. So we get together, communicate, understand that not everyone necessarily agrees on how the social world should be organized, and try to negotiate some sort of mutual compromise. (Or, alternatively, try to impose our will by force. But I like the mutual compromise approach better.) That’s how the world actually works.

“The moment when a fetus begins to accrue the rights we bestow on post-birth persons” is something that we, as a society, have to decide; the answer is not to be found in revelation, or in faith, or in philosophical contemplation of the nature of the soul, or for that matter in the natural world. This starting point is not necessarily prejudicial to what the final answer may be; I can certainly imagine a group of people coming together and agreeing that newly-conceived fetuses should be granted all the rights of any person. I would argue against them, on the basis that the interests of an autonomous and fully conscious mother should weigh much more heavily than those of the proto-person they carry. But I can’t say that they are unambiguously wrong in the same way that an erroneous claim about logic or even the empirical world can be said to be “wrong.”

If the social and political arrangement of a group puts stress on the autonomy of its individual responsible members (which ours does, and I like it that way), deciding what the criteria are for being judged an “individual responsible member” is of primary importance. Who gets to vote? Who gets to drive a car? Who decides when to unplug the respirator? Who is of “sound mind”? Who is a person? These are all hard questions with no cut-and-dried answers. But we can be fooled into thinking that some of the answers are pretty straightforward, if we believe in outdated notions of spirits being breathed into us by God.

There are many reasons why it’s incoherent to think of science and religion as simply separate and non-overlapping. They are different, but certainly overlapping. The greatest intellectual accomplishment of the last millennium is the naturalistic worldview: everything is constructed of the same basic building blocks, obeying the same rules, without any recourse to the supernatural. Appreciating that view doesn’t tell us how we should behave, but failing to appreciate it can very easily lead people to behave badly.

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109 Responses to Abortion and the Architecture of Reality

  1. mk says:

    Such a well reasoned piece. I’m going to print it out and refer to it each time, from now on, I enter into relevant discussions.

    Many thanks for articulating what I’ve been feeling.

  2. Not an American says:

    What a load of irrelevant twaddle.

    > The crucial question (I know, this is not exactly an astonishing new insight) is whether a fetus is really a person.

    Read the policy-defining decisions of the Supreme Court of your country some time when you’re not too busy with political blogging on your physics blog. E.g., Roe v. Wade.

  3. MissPrism says:

    Supporters of abortion rights don’t say “No, this is one case where murder is completely justified.”

    However, I’ve seen many, and they have a point, say “This is one case, out of many, where one person is not obliged to make any sacrifice to save the life of another.” If you are the only perfect match for a patient with leukaemia , you still cannot be forced to donate bone marrow. If you hit someone with your car and they need a pint of blood, no-one has the right to take it from you. Even if you accidentally push your friend off a cliff and he hangs by his fingers from a ledge, you are not legally obliged to take even a slight risk to your life or health to save him.

    So it doesn’t just depend on whether you see foetuses as human. It also depends whether you see pregnancy as hard work done by a human being, or the storage of a magic sperm in a magic cupboard.

  4. Ian says:

    Erm … not sure I follow this article at all. It’s not Catholic children who are pointed toward Horton hears a Who. Yes, Natural Law does reveal morality and ethics. No, the greatest intellectual accomplishment of the last millennium was not the naturalistic worldview.

    Can I humbly suggest you look at the Theology of the Body for more on this.

  5. Tara says:

    I would agree with mk that your article is well reasoned. However, I disagree with the basic premises you hold…which is why I come down on the opposite side of the fence.

    The biggest disagreement I have would be with that very naturalistic worldview that you hold up as the greatest intellectual accomplishment of the last millennium. I would argue that interactionalist dualism is wins over naturalism any day…and I’m far from the only person in the world to think so. Your conclusions on personhood are quite logical from the naturalistic viewpoint, but I think that this first and most basic premise is false. I think there’s more to the world than atoms and molecules and chemical reactions. And I don’t think that you can really conclude on the abortion debate until you’re able to demonstrate that this premise is true…your conclusions follow strongly from it. You say “But this is the world in which we actually live…” But you have yet to prove that this is, in fact, the world in which we actually live. I submit that it is not.

    So as well reasoned as your piece is, since I don’t actually hold to the naturalistic viewpoint that you assume to be true throughout your article, I’m not convinced of your ideas on the personhood of “proto-humans” either.

    My two cents.

  6. Thank you for a careful and rather nuanced analysis. I was bracing myself for the usual reductionist dismissiveness that many physicists bring to such questions. A few comments on particulars:

    But we can be fooled into thinking that some of the answers are pretty straightforward, if we believe in outdated notions of spirits being breathed into us by God.

    We might be fooled, equally, by assuming that because something cannot be measured today, that it might not someday be measured. We might even be fooled in thinking that something does not exist because it cannot be measured. (Does a magnetic monopole exist?)

    They are different, but certainly overlapping.

    Agreed. But it’s amazing how many people assume that in the overlapping areas, science must always take priority. In doing science, a person must commit herself to a Humean skepticism about what exists. The same person need not be so committed in forming and acting on religious beliefs. There is a set of beliefs that is consistent with both commitments and logically coherent. I believe and live in accordance with one such set of beliefs. It really annoys me when either group pretends that it gets a free trump whenever there is overlap. Each group needs to make its case on the basis of its own methodolgical commitments, not by mockery of the other group’s methodological commitments.

    If the social and political arrangement of a group puts stress on the autonomy of its individual responsible members (which ours does, and I like it that way)

    How much have you looked into the alternative values that compete with autonomy. You should see psychologist Haidt’s work on this topic:

    http://waywords.wordpress.com/2008/08/03/editorial-note/

  7. smijer says:

    In particular, it tells us that there is no magical moment at which an incorporeal soul takes up residence in a body.

    does it? really? I’d like to see that experiment!

  8. Otis says:

    The greatest intellectual achievement in the history of the world is stated in the US Declaration of Independence:
    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. “
    That idea has enormously benefited mankind like no other, and it derives directly from a theistic worldview.

    That idea lead to the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution. So, concerning abortion, at what point in the development of a human being does the US Constitution protect his/her life?

    During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama was asked that question. Despite teaching university courses on constitutional law, he answered, to his shame, that he did not know. The answer to that question must be decided.

    I will say that those who claim (such as Hilliary Clinton) that access to abortion is a constitutional right are part of the problem and not part of the solution.

  9. George Musser says:

    Nicely put. I would just add that the lesson of science holds whatever your views on religion may be. Specifically, the transition from non-human to human is a progression rather than a single sharp moment.

    As for “non-overlapping magisteria”, you set up a straw man when you say Gould held that science and religion “simply never address the same questions.” It depends on the questions. A broad question will of course involve overlap, but Gould’s claim is that a narrower question can fall into one domain or the other.

    George

  10. thales says:

    I’ve been pondering this issue for some time recently and haven’t come to a conclusion about *when* abortion is acceptable (this from a naturalistic point of view). I think it’s clear that a zygote is not a person. I think it’s equally clear that a newborn is a person.

    From what I’ve read, Dr. Tiller specialized in late-term abortions. Whenever you deem the transition to personhood to be complete, it seems obvious that it’s over the 50% mark in the last month or two. One can argue about sentience, consciousness, etc, but what really bothers me is that the late-term fetus feels pain, is capable of thought, and has desires. It’s probably aware to a certain degree too.

    So I have mixed feelings about Dr. Tiller’s death. Yes, vigilantism is terrible. Yes, if abortion is wrong then the law is to blame, not the person operating within the law. On the other hand, how much pain will now be prevented? It seems to me quite a lot. Is that worth it? I don’t know. I haven’t yet read or heard any strong arguments for why it wouldn’t be.

  11. Brian M says:

    A thoughtful and well reasoned article. Thanks. I would hasten to state, however, that I have not seen a single mainstream prolife group that did not denounce this terrible act of violence. Mr Terry is, evidently, a far-right kook. And we need to separate the extremes from either end of the discussion if we are to have a meaningful dialogue. As to when a “pre-born” baby becomes human – I would ask pro-choicers to hypothetically step backward in time. Let’s say, one second at a time. Is it ok to kill an infant? No. Is it ok to kill an unborn child one second before birth? Hopefully, no. Walk backward in time and tell me at what point it is ok to kill that fetus? Where is the dividing line after which it is ok to take a human life? Who takes the responsibility of deciding when the life is viable and when it is not? To me, in the light of those arguments, I think it is best to err on the side of defending an innocent life. You may say it is ridiculous to assign human rights to an embryo, and perhaps it is. But at what point would YOU take the responsibilty to say — OK, it’s alright to kill now.

  12. Count Iblis says:

    Not an American wrote:

    Read the policy-defining decisions of the Supreme Court of your country some time when you’re not too busy with political blogging on your physics blog. E.g., Roe v. Wade

    The Supreme Court rulings are also the result of chemical reactions. An intitial state of atoms containing information about the legal dispute “Roe v. Wade” evolved via the Schrödinger equation into some final state containing a “Supreme Court Ruling”.

  13. The Chemist says:

    Well wow, I was really expecting a little more praise for this than it got, and all I can assume is that some people read through it and projected their own insecurities and ideologies onto what they thought Sean was saying.

    It’s a good assessment of how natural law and man’s law (in which “God’s law” must be included) might interact. We’re not as well equipped to make ethical decisions as we think we are. Numerous psychological studies have shown that we will allow a group of people to come to harm if given the alternative of killing one person ourselves, that we can be commanded to harm by an authority figure, that we can and always will abuse authority entrusted to us, and that we are incapable of completely rational certainty since subconscious thought handles so much of the process.

    Even if you believe that a God or gods exist and the he/they have set laws in stone, the natural evaluation of man’s own nature dictates that we are incapable of ever interpreting these laws consistently no matter how black and white we try to characterize them because human beings don’t see ethical issues in black and white. We see them based on the paradigm of our individual experience and upbringing.

  14. smadin says:

    The crucial question (I know, this is not exactly an astonishing new insight) is whether a fetus is really a person.

    I actually disagree with this, mainly for Judith Jarvis Thomson’s reasons. Even if we consider an embryo a full person, with full human rights, those rights never include using another person’s body against the latter’s will, just as I have the right not to donate a kidney even if, because I don’t, someone else will die.

  15. mk says:

    @Brian M…

    I think Sean covers this properly:

    So we get together, communicate, understand that not everyone necessarily agrees on how the social world should be organized, and try to negotiate some sort of mutual compromise. (Or, alternatively, try to impose our will by force. But I like the mutual compromise approach better.) That’s how the world actually works.

    So to turn the question back at you… when is it OK to perform an abortion. Never? Rarely? If rarely, when and under what circumstances?

  16. MissPrism says:

    thales, this is a bit of a derail, but: Late term abortions are done for medical reasons. Dr Tiller saved the lives of women who could not safely bear children (like cancer patients and eleven-year-old rape victims), and he performed late term abortions when the foetus was already dead or had conditions that would have killed it soon after birth (eg harlequin fetus, anencephaly, or cyclopia, and don’t google those if you’re easily upset).

    If late-term abortions become unavailable due to Tiller’s assassination, a mother who learns at six months that her WANTED pregnancy is doomed will have to wait three more months, go through labour and then watch her baby die, possibly in severe pain. In such cases late term abortion can be the safer, less traumatic and more merciful choice; it should be legal and accessible.

  17. Brian M says:

    Smadin, when you say “those rights never include using another person’s body against the latter’s will” can we assume that you are against abortion except in cases of rape? Otherwise, the latter had plenty of will. mk – when it is ok to perform abortion? Same answer, my opinion only, in cases of rape (and some disagree on that point because they feel that because a great wrong was committed against someone doesn’t mean we should kill the innocent result of that wrong) and also when the life of the mother is in danger. At those times I personally feel that the difficult and painful decision must lay with (in the case of rape) sparing the victim from more pain and (in the case of a life-threatening condition) sparing the mother’s life. I do feel the mother is “more aware” then the unborn child so in those, and only those, rare circumstances I think an abortion is the only unfortunate recourse.

  18. Brian M says:

    Miss Prism, you’re a bit off on Tiller’s criteria. Facts are that he performed late term abortions on anyone who could afford it and he made millions doing it. If the mother’s life is in danger, or the child is already demonstrably dead (then obviously no pro-lifer would consider that an abortion) that’s a different thing and should be allowed.

  19. :) says:

    @smadin
    @MissPrism

    “Even if you accidentally push your friend off a cliff and he hangs by his fingers from a ledge, you are not legally obliged to take even a slight risk to your life or health to save him.”

    “Even if we consider an embryo a full person, with full human rights, those rights never include using another person’s body against the latter’s will, just as I have the right not to donate a kidney even if, because I don’t, someone else will die.”

    These statements are simply not legally valid. It is true in general that a person has no duty to act or come to the aid of a third party, but there are “special circumstances” in where a duty is owed. Some examples are in a Parent/Child relationship, where if the Child is in danger the Parent does have a legal duty to act/protect the Child. Additionally, if one person creates a situation that puts another person in harm, the first person may have a limited legal duty to act/aid the person being harmed. Therefore, if you push someone off a ledge and they are dangling, you probably have a duty to aid them as long as it doesn’t put you in danger.

    So, in the context of abortion, you could say if the fetus is determined to be a human being, that there is a Parent/Child relationship. Additionally, you could argue that the mother created the situation(becoming pregnant), so she owes a duty to the child to keep it safe. ***These situations would probably only be valid as long as there is no danger of harm to the mother.

    Just my $.02

  20. The Chemist says:

    I actually disagree with this, mainly for Judith Jarvis Thomson’s reasons. Even if we consider an embryo a full person, with full human rights, those rights never include using another person’s body against the latter’s will, just as I have the right not to donate a kidney even if, because I don’t, someone else will die.

    HUGE hole in the logic there. True, I’m not responsible for a random person’s kidney failing. However, I am responsible for my genitals (if we can phrase it that way). If you poisoned my kidneys and you’re a match then yes, I would actually expect you to give me one as restitution. If people have sex and a child results, and assuming the fetus is indeed a “person” in that ineffable sense of the word, then the people (since it always takes two, though many Christians and Muslims would disagree) are responsible for that life since they undertook the unnecessary risk that would endanger it in the first place. Barring rape, no one is being forced to have unprotected sex and people are generally cognizant that heterosexual, protected, penetrative sex always carries some risk of pregnancy. Unlike food, sex is not a basic human need.

    Now rape is another issue, and ideally we could make the rapist take the baby to term (assuming again that a fetus is indeed a person at conception). However, this is more of a dangler’s dilemma, I wake up after an accident and find someone is dangling from me by a rope that somehow entangled us both over a cliff’s edge. This person is attached to me and dangling over a cliff. I’m healthy, heavy, and strong enough to support the person (but not so much as to be completely assured of my own safety) as they take the time they need to come up the cliff face. Should I cut the rope because the entanglement does present me with uncertain danger, or would prudence dictate that I wait until such a danger becomes more certain?

  21. MissPrism says:

    Under Kansas state law, abortions later in pregnancy are legal only if two independent physicians agree that the mother could suffer irreparable harm by giving birth. Despite the best efforts of “pro-life” organisations, Tiller was not found to have broken this law. If you have evidence to the contrary, Brian, a lot of people would really like to see it.

  22. smadin says:

    Smadin, when you say “those rights never include using another person’s body against the latter’s will” can we assume that you are against abortion except in cases of rape?

    You could assume that, Brian, but you’d be utterly wrong. Consenting to have sex is absolutely not the same as consenting to become pregnant.

    :), are you claiming that a parent can be legally compelled to donate an organ to safe his or her child’s life?

    The Chemist, it’s not a question of whether you “would expect” me to give you a kidney. The plain fact is that neither you nor anyone else has any legal or moral right to compel me to.

  23. Scott says:

    MissPrism took the words out of my mouth (fingers?) at post #16. The biggest problem with the rhetoric of the anti-abortionists is that it is misleading. Not unlike the current conservative rhetoric (pick almost any topic) spewed by the fox news pundits, it is intentionally portraying the opposing side as being purposely immorral (eg baby killer rather than mother saver) without ever telling the whole story.

    Those people calling anyone else immorral is aclear case of a pot and kettle.

  24. Brian M says:

    smadin, the person who has sex and somehow thinks they are absolved of the possibility of getting pregnant is an idiot. MissPrism, estimates are that Tiller performed 60,000 abortions in his career. You are free to believe all of those were legitimate if it makes you sleep better.

  25. :) says:

    smadin

    No a parent would not have a duty to donate a kidney. Imposed duties generally need to be reasonable, and they are usually restricted to instances where the person under the duty will not be put in danger.